Dining out in Tucson
By Mary Paganelli Votto
Photography by Tom Spitz
In Tucson, tamales are a holiday tradition. They’re integral to the holiday experience, whether you go to a restaurant to devour them, make them at home or hold a tamale-making party. No one seems to know why or how this tradition began, but it doesn’t really matter because these Southwest staples are so delicious! One of the most ancient foods on the planet, the tamal is found in many cultures all around the world. The concept is so simple: corn, filling, corn husks … kudos to the clever cook who was the first to put it all together.
In the spirit of holiday sharing, we bring you a taste — from hostess Stella Schaefer’s annual tamale party to the restaurants in town that offer some of the best examples of this divine dish.
The elegant and lovely Stella Schaefer, a native Tucsonan, hosts a wonderful tamale party every year in her home, inviting a special group of women. “When I was a little girl we always made tamales for the holidays with my mother and aunts and grandmother. I decided it would be fun to a group together to cook — away from kids and fundraising events,” she explains.
“I’ve had this party for the past seven years and it’s just getting bigger and bigger. It started with four guests and this year we may need to move to the dining room table because friends bring friends. It’s not a formal thing, it’s fun, so no one comes dressed up. We stand around my kitchen island and chat and work. Besides a tamale party, we do an apron contest — whoever has the strangest or ugliest apron wins!”
On the day of the party, usually the first Thursday in December, Stella sets up her spacious kitchen, placing large pots on the stovetop for steaming the tamales, soaking dried corn husks in big bowls of water and setting out tamale-making ingredients on her kitchen island. “Guests bring their meat — cooked and shredded, either beef, chicken or pork — a big bowl, spatula, big spoon and resealable bags,” she explains, “I supply the homemade masa and my aunt Maria makes her slightly spicy sauce that we use with our shredded meat.”
Once everyone arrives, the fun begins! After displaying their aprons, a winner is declared, and the tamale making begins. Amid lots of laughter, the ladies take the soaked husks, spread them with a dollop of homemade masa, add their fillings and fold them up — easier said than done. “There’s a technique to how to hold the husk and spread the masa, it’s not easy,” explains Stella, “I show them how to fold the tamale, to hold the husk with one hand, put a few dollops of masa on the husk, spread it, put the meat in the center, then fold the left first, fold right, grab the top and fold the tip over.”
Once the tamales are made, Stella starts the cooking process. “There’s a trick to the steaming, too. Sometimes the best thing to do is to put corn husks on the bottom of the pot so if your water starts to dry up your tamales won’t burn and have that brown flavor.” There’s an added bonus to being the cook. “It’s a bit exhausting but I get a tamale facial as I’m steaming them,” she says with a smile.
“Traditionally, tamales are eaten the day before Christmas as part of the meal and given away as gifts to friends and colleagues. My mother used to make watermelon tamales and shrimp tamales with jalapeños,” she remembers, “I love making the sweet bean ones, with refried beans, brown sugar, raisins, cinnamon and vanilla.”
The final leg of the party is the best. “Once the tamales are ready, we’re all hungry and we want to eat!” Everyone gathers together as Stella serves the finished tamales with flutes of mimosas for a little extra holiday spirit. When the meal is over, guests help clean up, then take their tamales home.
Anita’s Street Market
849 N. Anita Ave.
Tiny Anita’s Street Market is hidden on a side street in colorful Barrio Anita, squeezed between the train tracks and busy I-10. Started by Mario and Grace Soto, this family owned store has been producing homemade tamales and tortillas for the past 26 years. Granddaughter Gracie Soto runs the store now. “I was literally born into the business,” she laughs. “My mom was working in the store making tamales when she was pregnant with me and I’ve always worked here.”
Although Gracie runs the store, her grandmother is still in the kitchen making her famous green corn tamales, along with red chile beef and chicken varieties. “It’s my grandma’s recipe and she makes them all from scratch. The green corn is our best seller. We sell dozens and dozens to out-of-towners who take them all over the country.” You’ll see why when you bite into the dense masa, layered with mild green chiles and melty cheese.
“During the holidays is when we’re the busiest,” shares Grace. “We sell tons of tamales, about 300 to 400 dozen a week during the first few weeks before Christmas and the 24th is the busiest of all. Customers say our cooking reminds them of their families’ — it’s the closest that you can get to your mom or grandma’s. We make our food with love.”
Anita’s tamales are available fresh, frozen, singly, by the half dozen and dozen.
(Open Monday through Saturday, 8 am. to 5:30 p.m.)
2005 East Broadway
There’s a long history of tamale making at Lerua’s. The Lerua family sold tamales out of their home on Fourth Street starting back in 1922 until Tony Lerua bought the patch of land at the northeast corner of Campbell and Broadway in 1939, where they’re currently located.
Tamales have always been the big draw here. “Our green corn is our top seller, and it’s all about the corn,” shares current owner Mike Hultquist. He’s been working at the restaurant since he was a kid. “I grew up working here, cleaning shelves at age seven,” he recalls fondly. His mom purchased the place from the Lerua family in 1961 and he and his brother took over in 1988.
Lerua’s secret is the fresh corn that they process daily into the fluffy, delicious masa that makes their green corn tamales so delicious and wildly popular. “Our green corn tamales are pure corn,” explains Mike. “It takes 11 hours for us to make one batch of 60 dozen tamales.” The hard work takes place in the back of the kitchen where huge gunnysacks of corn are delivered directly from farmers who Mike has been working with for decades. His farmers grow special varieties of corn just for Lerua’s, and Mike personally visits each farmer and cornfield.
Once the corn comes in, the lengthy process begins. Alicia Ramirez, who’s worked at Lerua’s for 20 years, twists off the layers of green husks, setting aside the best ones to use as wrappings for the tamales, and pulls off the fine silk. The cleaned ear of corn gets passed to Rita Reyes, who’s been on staff for 41 years. She grabs the ear, and using a super-sharp knife slices off all the kernels into a flat pan. The fresh kernels are poured into a grinding mill and mixed with cheese and milk to make the fresh masa. Each batch of masa is then combined with a special blend of vegetable and soy oils that Mike created after a year of experimentation and consultation with the University of Arizona Nutritional Services department. The fresh masa is spread onto the fresh green husks, folded up tight and steamed for several hours. “The husk has to be green, there is flavor and nutrients in the fresh husk,” explains Mike. “If the husk is brown then the tamale was not made from fresh corn.”
At Christmas time, Lerua’s makes up to a hundred dozen tamales a day, including a special sweet bean tamale. Made with pinto beans, masa, raisins, cinnamon, Mexican brown sugar and cloves. “It’s like Santa coming into town and it’s ridiculously good,” Mike says.
Lerua’s also makes beef and chicken tamales and mini tamales for caterings and events, and will make vegan and vegetarian versions upon request. You can eat their tamales at the restaurant, order them to go, fresh or frozen, by phone and on the web. They will ship them, frozen, to anywhere in the 50 states. They’ve even been sent as far as Norway!
(Open daily, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
Tucson Tamale Company
2545 E. Broadway
And now for something completely different! For variety and creativity, Tucson Tamale Company is the place to go. A relative newcomer to the tamale table, owner Todd Martin left a top job at Intuit to follow his dream and opened Tucson Tamale Company in November 2008. Todd was intrigued by tamales after participating in his in-laws’ holiday tamale-making party. “It was the first time I made tamales,” he recalls. “We went to my mother-in-law’s house and I thought we would be there just a couple of hours. We ended up making 160 dozen tamales and it took all day! I was interested in the whole celebration of it. The family coming together and the process was enchanting.”
This enchantment has resulted in a hectic business where Todd and his staff turn out more than 20 varieties of tamales daily. And what a variety there is to choose from. “It became clear to me that a tamale is like a sandwich — you can put whatever you want in it! We’re not trying to replicate anyone’s tradition, just bringing a new taste to folks.”
New tastes are available like the tamale that was inspired by the Sonoran hot dog, and incorporates cut-up, cooked hot dogs, bacon, onions, tomatoes, pinto beans, green chiles, chili and cheese, and The Little Italy, which is filled with Italian sausage, sweet peppers, onions and marinara sauce. “The most popular are the Santa Fe and the Blue Tamale,” reveals Todd. “Our masa is 100 percent organic and GMO free and we use canola oil because I wanted the corn and filling flavors to be prominent.” Other choices include vegetarian, vegan and dessert tamales, all gluten- and lard-free. During peak season (November through April) Tucson Tamale Company makes more than 15,000 tamales a week, shipping them all over the country — primarily to tamale lovers in the Northeast.
Todd is always looking for new combinations and loves new ideas, even from customers.
You can eat in (at a smattering of small tables at the store); take out frozen or fresh refrigerated tamales; purchase them at numerous retail stores or farmers markets from Tucson to Bisbee; or order them online. They will ship frozen tamales to all 50 states.
(Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 pm, Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Multiple locations in Tucson
El Charro matriarch and Chef Carlotta Flores adores tamales and the traditions and cultural history they represent. She has been making and serving them in her family restaurant since she took over the kitchen from her great aunt Monica 40 years ago. As the oldest continuously operated family owned Mexican restaurant in the country. Carlotta knows her tamales and tamale traditions. “A Tamalada is a gathering of family from every generation to make tamales for any special occasion, but usually at Christmas,” she explains. “Everyone has a job at this party — from cleaning the husk to wrapping the tamales. A Tamalada is a good way for children to learn the process and the cycle of tradition.” And tradition is a big part of the El Charro philosophy, reflected in both the overall menu and the tamale selections.
You’ll find several tamales to try on Carlotta’s menu, from the traditional red chile beef with a green olive and fresh green corn tamal, to the not-so-traditional pork carnitas, chicken tomatillo and Tamales Supremas.
“Tamales Supremas take things to the next level!” she says. Does it ever, featuring a fresh corn tamal topped with homemade, slow-cooked birria/brisket and a red chile beef tamal topped with rich Chile Colorado stew — layers of tradition and flavors all in one bite.
Carlotta has experimented with many flavors of tamales. “Our customers’ most favorite ones are the dessert ones,” she confides. “In late September we start making a pumpkin pecan tamale (using Sahuarita pecans) and we like to serve it with a cranberry orange sauce or a caramel dulce de leche sauce.” These delectable desserts are only available seasonally so be sure to mark your calendar!
El Charro’s locations also host special festivals throughout the year featuring tamale tastings, cooking demos and storytelling.
“At Christmas time last year, we produced one million red chile tamales,” reveals Carlotta. These were served in El Charro restaurants and shipped statewide.